Beaming with satisfaction

When the market collapsed, so did the love affair with barn conversions . Now they're back in vogue.
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The Independent Online
In the enormous kitchen your eye is immediately drawn to the dramatic floor tiles. But without pausing for comment, Emma Perring makes straight for the cupboard handles and burnished metal window catches: "Aren't they wonderful? I had to order them from France. Our builder thought I was mad to spend so much, but now he's telling everyone about them". The small detail of a converted barn can, it seems, matter as much as the grand scheme.

This is the first week that Ms Perring and her husband Christian have spent in their Sussex home, transformed from 18th-century grain barn to five-bedroom house in six months. They fell for it on first sight, and bonded completely after they discovered a short walk through fields led them to miles of unspoilt beach.

In the mid Eighties there was a rush for barn conversions when buyers snapped up run-down farm buildings and did them up. When the market collapsed, so did the love affair with barns. People felt safer with more traditional homes. But once again, as confidence returns, the barn conversion is back in vogue.

Even so - as Emma Perring is the first to recognise - it is an acquired taste. Every beam in her house has been retained. However awkward the position or pristine the wall, the original function of the building is evident from the wooden structures. One beam pops up in the middle of a bedroom; another in the kitchen.

Not that they had any choice. The barn is listed and planning consent came with stringent requirements. The roof had to be replaced with thatch; the chimney stack had to be a functional funnel rather than brick. "I wanted the windows - all handmade - painted white, but they had to be stained dark. I like them now though. We love the juxtaposition of the very old and the new," Ms Perring continues. "We wanted clean, straight lines - and to avoid being twee."

It is at the barn-like centre of their house, in the vast airy living room, that the modern and historic so clearly co-exist. Some 12ft windows, just a third of the room's height, sit in the old entrance where the barn doors serve as shutters; a new inglenook fireplace is embedded with an old beam; under-floor heating does away with distracting and inefficient radiators; the lighting is discreet but effective. Minimalism within flint and brick walls.

The opportunity to create an interior is one of the prime reasons buyers are looking at barns, says John German of Cluttons. "You can expect to pick up an unconverted barn for around pounds 50,000 to pounds 100,000 and if it is listed you can claim the VAT back." The same agents also stress the importance of going to a reputable surveyor with a good understanding of old buildings, and if the barn has been converted, to check the reputation of the developer.

This was a major concern to Emma Perring, who paid pounds 100,000 for their barn. She runs her own company, Perring Designs, in London, and has had many a fraught time with builders. She drew up a shortlist and was at once impressed by the company she and Christian chose, John C Lilleywhite of Chichester.

"They laid out a detailed plan, with a proper building schedule. Each stage had a time-scale and, during the work, if they failed to reach a target we would get a written update and explanation. I trusted them to make decisions when we weren't around. It is vital to find someone who understands absolutely what you are trying to create," she says.

Cheapskate conversions were a regrettable feature of the Eighties and these are the properties that are difficult to sell even now. Pine doors in oak barns, ill-fitting windows, poor heating systems and insensitive design, have left scars on the barn conversion landscape.

But however good a builder, the temptation to be hands-on can be irresistible. When Emma Perring felt she not getting involved enough she took over two simple projects - in the end, the only ones to go wrong. "I made a complete mess of them. I got the wrong number of lights and now we are short of tiles for the porch. It's the only thing in the house unfinished."